US-China relations: Xi Jinping's 21-gun salute belies a rocky turn

The bright side to President Xi's state visit: With tensions over cybercrime, the South China Sea, and human rights, diplomacy may be the logical place to start. 

David Ryder/Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping leaves after visiting Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington, September 23, 2015.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for his first state visit to the United States, he and his host, Barack Obama face a profound and unsettling question: Might their two countries be running out of cooperative steam after four decades of engagement, only to embark on a new cold war?

On the presidential summit agenda are thorny issues such as allegations that China is aggressively hacking into US government and corporate databases, and doubts about Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea.

Behind such talking points lie deeper worries, says Michael Swaine, a China analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. US policymakers are wondering whether “a shift in Chinese assertiveness requires a shift in US assertiveness,” while “China is asking if the US is discarding its engagement policy in favor of…containment."

To be sure, the Obama administration is according full respect and protocol honors to China, including a 21-gun salute. State visits mostly emphasize the positive by their nature, points out Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst. "President Xi has already been handed all of the goodies. He’s going to get the arrival ceremony. He’s going to get the state dinner," says Mr. Johnson, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Yet allaying persistent US-China tensions, says Zhu Feng, head of a South China Sea study center at Nanjing University, will take “statesmanship on both sides, to go beyond complaints and dissatisfaction to help get things back on track."

Indeed, complaints and dissatisfaction have risen so thickly just this summer that they have threatened to define the relationship.

At the top of Washington’s list is China’s behavior in the cyber-sphere, which President Obama branded recently as “not acceptable” while warning Beijing that “I guarantee you we’ll win” any cyber-conflict that might break out.

Xi denies Chinese hacking

Obama’s blunt words, and thinly veiled threats he might impose sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals found to be hacking US networks, seem to have got Beijing’s attention. Last weekend Chinese security tsar Meng Jianzhu left Washington after four days of negotiations amid reports that some kind of deal was in the works.

In an interview published Monday in the Wall Street Journal, President Xi denied his government encouraged Chinese firms to hack their US competitors and said that, “Cybertheft of commercial secrets and hacking attacks against government networks…are criminal offenses and should be punished according to law.”

US negotiators are understood to have pressed Beijing to pledge to prosecute Chinese firms against whom Washington has evidence of cyber crimes. Beijing’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, had earlier said in an interview with the state-run China Daily that he hoped China and the US “could work together to work out the rules for cyber-security,” echoing Obama’s call for new “rules of the road.”

China claims that its government and companies are victims of hacking too, pointing to revelations by Edward Snowden about secret “backdoors” installed in US-made technology. Both China and the US would seem to share an interest in outlawing peace-time attacks on key infrastructure, which might offer the basis for future negotiations.

Analysts see less chance of any understanding on the South China Sea, where Beijing has been aggressively building artificial islands for airstrips and other infrastructure. US calls for a moratorium on such actions have fallen on deaf ears and will continue to do so, predicts Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “If the US makes an issue out of this they will be wasting their time,” he says. “We will not listen.”

The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam – all rival claimants to islands in the South China Sea – have also reclaimed land in the past without drawing Washington’s ire. That perceived double standard, suggests Jia Qingguo, deputy head of the School of International Relations at Peking University, is behind Chinese doubts about “whether the US is really adopting the position of neutrality on territorial issues” that it professes to hold.

For its part, Washington has concerns about the extent of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, which Beijing has left deliberately vague. That uncertainty, sharpened by the rapid creation of new islands that could serve as military bases, is prompting US policymakers “to hedge in the direction of deterrence,” says Dr. Swaine.

That, in turn, is sparking “very negative” attitudes in Beijing, points out Prof. Jia. “Negative interactions can happen very fast,” he warns.

Sea change in perception about China

This is especially true, says David Shambaugh, head of the China Policy Program at George Washington University in Washington DC, because of what he calls a “sea change” this year in the prevailing attitude to China within the US foreign policy establishment.

The mood now, he says, is “very sour” as one US think-tank report after another has urged the Obama administration to re-examine the policy of engagement with Beijing that the last eight US presidents have upheld. 

This dynamic is driven partly by disappointment at the crackdown President Xi has ordered on lawyers, civil society activists and other independent voices. Stated policies against "foreign influences" have been seen as part of crackdowns against Chinese evangelicals. The effect is to severely curb  longstanding, though perhaps misplaced, US hopes that economic modernization in China would bring political liberalization in its wake. 

"US concern about China’s internal practices and human rights situation is at an all time high since 1989” when the military put a violent end to pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, says Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

US businessmen already invested in China are also worried about the economic situation. “The perception in the business community is that reform has stalled and doors may be closing to…foreign investment,” says James Zimmerman, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

This frustration comes amid a steady rise in Chinese investment in the US. Chinese companies now employ more than 80,000 Americans and operate in 340 of 435 congressional districts, according to Rhodium Group, a business consultancy. 

Still, for the first time in many years, says Prof. Shambaugh, “there is no strong constituency in Washington for engagement” with China. 

The US-Sino relationship is confused, argues Prof. Jia, by the fact that China is “still learning how to manage issues as a strong, rich superpower and it has a lot of things to learn. China’s foreign policy has become more inconsistent at a time when the world is very anxious to gauge Chinese intentions.”

To be sure, the United States and China are tightly linked at many levels and in many sectors. The two largest economies in the world are highly interdependent and their governments have set up nearly 100 bilateral working groups, dialogue channels and negotiating teams to manage their multifarious relationship.

Yet both Washington and Beijing still suffer from “a really shallow understanding of each other’s intentions,” worries Ms. Glaser.

Analysts expect this week's summit to yield an agreement of some sort on cyber issues, further steps to combat climate change, measures to reduce the risk of military accidents in East Asia, and a pledge to finalize a bilateral investment treaty by the end of Obama’s term in office.

But most importantly, says Shambaugh, the summit offers the hope that the two leaders can “stem the bleeding” in a deteriorating relationship, at least temporarily.

“The relationship is fraught and stressed and competitive and undergoing great difficulties…but it could be much worse and more adversarial,” Shambaugh suggests. “The summit could prevent that drift from happening.”

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